Over the last five weeks, I have been teaching at Peninsula Bridge, a fun academic summer program for under-privileged kids. I taught a “Food, Gardening, Cooking” elective at Bridge in which my students and I attempted to get closer to our food by making and growing it ourselves.
In the first class, I handed every kid a chocolate chip cookie but instructed them not to eat it until later. First, we worked together to brainstorm the different ingredients that made up the cookies in front of us: flour, eggs, sugar, salt, baking soda, chocolate, vanilla, coconut, and milk (in the chocolate chips). These store-bought cookies had palm oil in them as well though you might not add that to your home-baked ones.
Next, I sketched up a map of the world on the chalkboard and we went through every ingredient, brainstorming to identify its source. Each time we figured out where something was grown or raised, we plotted it on the map and drew a line from the source to the Bay Area. (Though really they all stopped by L.A. first since Trader Joe’s distributes its food from Monrovia, CA according to the label on the package.)
As the group worked and I contributed a little bit of earlier research, we began to put everything together. Flour comes from wheat probably grown in the midwest, eggs from chickens most likely also raised in the midwest, sugar from sugar cane in Brazil. Salt is harvested from the ocean (I chose the Atlantic off the east coast of the US, based on that tiny bit of research). The chocolate in the chocolate chips came from the beans of the cocoa tree which are often imported from Northwest Africa and the milk in the chips came from California cows (most likely). The Vanilla extract came from pods of the Vanilla orchid possibly from Madagascar among other countries. The palm oil was extracted from oil palm plantations in Indonesia or Malaysia. The coconuts were probably grown from Indonesia or another Southeast Asian country as well. And after all this collective thought, I told everyone that they could now enjoy their chocolate chip cookie as long as they ate slowly and savored it, appreciating all that went into producing it.
Tracing these ingredients back to their beginning was pretty eye-opening for everyone. The map ended up looking pretty crazy, but even beyond the sheer number of miles travelled, we thought about all the energy, resources, plants, animals, and people that went into that little cookie. I explained that this exercise wasn’t meant to shock or discourage them. From my point of view, feeding seven billion people is necessarily going to take a lot of energy and resources. But we can still take the process into our own hands to get to know it a little better. And that is what we set out to do.
Each kid planted vegetable seeds in recycled egg cartons and had a chance to watch them grow. Together, we learned the art of making bread from a friend of mine who is an expert in the subject. We made pesto pizza from scratch (except we bought the cheese). We learned about keeping chickens and the difference between home-grown and store-bought eggs. The former have stronger shells, brighter, firmer, more nutritious and flavorful yolks all because the chickens have a more diverse diet. We cooked up our own eggs (courtesy of my five chickens). I even brought in my chicken Misty so everyone could see where their eggs were coming from.
I wanted the class to be fun and I saw quickly that anything remotely lecture-based would not hold their attention or gain their enthusiasm. So, I tried to make everything as hands-on as possible. We made and grew whatever the kids wanted to. And through all this, I tried to always remind the kids of the process going on in front of our eyes that we had helped facilitate. Sometimes we took flour, water, yeast, and other ingredients to make bread or added sunlight, water, and soil to grow plants. When we were baking, I would say that “only a few minutes ago this bread dough was just raw ingredients. Now they’ve combined to make this amazing and delicious thing.” I would tell them all to look at the tiny lettuce seed in my hand. And I would ask, “Can you believe that with a little time and some energy from the sun, this will give us tons of awesome veggies?” It’s so fascinating to think of the humble beginnings at which everything starts and to watch the process unfold in a series of little transitions until we have our finished product, delicious and fresh.
Sometimes the process is simple: I can walk down to the creek near my house and pick blackberries to eat right then or juice the the apples from the tree in my backyard and drink the juice that day. In both cases, the plant grows and I pick it: no cooking or processing (except for juicing) or shipping. Sometimes the process is more complex: feeding grass and grain to a cow as it grows, slaughtering and butchering the cow, processing and shipping its meat, and eventually cooking it.
If the process is shorter and simpler, it may often be more energy efficient and lest wasteful. It also may be easier to take into your own hands. It is more straightforward to grow your own tomatoes than to raise your own cow. And for the people who have the time and motivation to do it, this process can be really rewarding and enlightening. On an individual level, it can even have less impact on the environment. In eating my own chickens’ eggs, I am avoiding any factory farmed eggs (as I pointed out in my last post).
However, it is in my opinion a mistake to think that taking a simple process into our own hands is going to solve everything that is wrong with our food system. Many people out there rely on the long complex systems like those involved in producing meat, cheese, or highly processed foods. It is true that we can through different changes in policy bring more whole foods to those who wouldn’t ordinarily eat them. But still I think that realistically there will always be a demand and necessity for those foods which come from the long and complex processes that no citizen can realistically take into their own hands. After all, those are often some of the most calorie and nutrient-dense foods because we can combine many ingredients (and their flavors) into a single yummy product. I think that the true answer to many problems with our food system lies in changing these processes to make them more efficient and sustainable. And that is the hard part, the really hard part. But it all starts with just knowing and appreciating all that went into that chocolate chip cookie.
On another note, this is the 50th blog post! The blog has been around for about two years now. I’m excited to keep it going for a long time.